Two Important Live Events and a Significant DVD

If you are looking for something to do this evening, Saturday, March 16, let me pull your coat to two live events that are worth a trip into the winter weather.

I have a longstanding relationship with the Rockland Country Jewish Film Festival, having been a guest speaker there many times. Circumstance precludes my repeating that role this year, regrettably, but I want to draw your attention to their April schedule, which is one of their strongest ever, and to a special World Premiere they are having tonight at 8:30 p.m of  Twenty Million Minutes, a new documentary that retraces the story of the local Jewish Community Center's attempt to get the International Olympic Committee to authorize a minute of silence at last summer's London games in recognition of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. It's a great topic and an uphill battle and, given the constant and utterly undeserved encomia to the 'Olympic ideal' in the U.S., a nice corrective. You can find more information on their website.


 Ironically, my own Washington Heights Film Class is holding the first of this year's four "Meet the Filmmaker" nights at almost the exact same time, albeit a few miles south, and we'll be having what amounts to a New York public premiere of Adam Orman's Fifth Form.

Fifth Form: The joys of being a senior

Fifth Form iis a wry look at adolescence and identity, with Josh (Jonah Rosenthal) a bright Jewish teen entering his first year at a posh boarding school as US is poised on the edge of the first Gulf War. He becomes involved in a series of Animal House-type antics that quickly escalate beyond the playful. The resulting disaster forces him to take a hard look at who he is becoming and what he wants to be. I like this film (even though the director is a friend of mine!). Adam mixes moods quite deftly, the comedy is funny without being gross, and the denouement is thoughtful and deeply felt.

The screening will take place at our usual lemonade stand, the Social Hall of Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation (Ft. Washington Avenue and 185th St.) at 7 p.m. Needless to say, Orman will be present to take questions and talk about the exigencies of indie film production.(Given that Adam is a fellow Ira voter, there is a chance that other fabled members of the Brethren will be in attendance.) Admission will be $15, but it's free for class members and you can join on the spot at the pro-rated price of $70/50 for seniors.

 As I have said here before, 2012 was an excellent year for documentaries, and you'd have to look hard to find a better example than Chanoch Ze'evi's Hitler's Children. The film, which played theatrically in New York City in November (and is on offer at the Rockland event next month), is distributed by Film Movement and, as is their practice, will be available to their subscribers on DVD shortly, accompanied by an appropriate short.

When the film came out I wrote the following in Jewish Week:

The Torah enjoins us to honor our parents. But if your family were monstrous criminals who killed hundreds of thousands, even millions, what is your responsibility? As Katrin Himmler, Heinrich Himmler’s grand-niece, says in the new documentary film “Hitler’s Children,” “At what point does it become impossible to love those parents?”

The film, directed by Israeli documentarian Chanoch Ze’evi, is as cunningly structured as a good thriller, and just as taut. Ze’evi moves deftly between five descendants of infamous Nazis, parceling out revelations judiciously. Aided in no small part by the crisp editing of Arik Lahav Leibovitz, “Hitler’s Children” is a much needed and too brief look at the Shoah from a different point of view. The film opens Friday, November 16.

The five subjects of the film are Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, the head of the occupation government of Poland; Himmler, grand-niece of the head of the SS and Gestapo and one of Hitler’s closest associates; Bettina Göring, grand-niece of Herman, the head of the Luftwaffe and a central figure in the Nazi regime; Rainer Hoess, grandson of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf; and Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, and a central figure in “Schindler’s List.” While their reactions to knowledge of their families’ dark past is uniformly negative, ranging from strong distaste to outright revulsion and loathing, those reactions manifest themselves in wildly different ways.

Frank was eight years old when his father was executed after being found guilty at the Nuremburg tribunal.  He has written a scathing book about his father and his crimes; he travels across Germany and Austria giving readings and talks to school groups. Frank by nature as well as name, he is blunt, even profane in his denunciation of the Nazis and his father’s role. Yet one comes away from the film with a strong sense that his compulsive need to re-enact this denunciation has gradually transformed itself from an ethical crusade into a ritual of self-cleansing and self-abasement. 

Niklas Frank with students in Hitler's Children

By contrast Göring, who now lives in Santa Fe, NM, seems to have sought out a kind of refuge in a mixture of New Age isolation combined with a nostalgia for an older German folk culture untainted by the events of the 1930s and ‘40s. Both she and her brother chose to be sterilized rather than carry on the family name. “I inherited their s**t,” she says bluntly. “There won’t be any more Görings.”

Himmler, like Frank, has written and published a family history, “The Himmler Brothers.” Also like Frank, her publication divided the surviving family members, but probably no more so than her marriage to an Israeli son of survivors.

Hertwig seems deeply haunted by the gradual process of learning about her father. More than any of the other participants in the film, she seems a badly damaged adult, a reality that is emphasized by Ze’evi’s pitiless close-ups of her deeply lined face with its death-haunted, staring eyes and her tremulous voice and quivering lips. She seems to relish recounting stories of confiding her identity to a local bar owner who was a victim of her father’s sadism, and her shocked reaction to Spielberg’s vision of her father as casual tormentor.

Perhaps the central figure of the film, though, is Rainer Hoess who is obsessed with a package of photos left by his father that show the apparently idyllic childhood he enjoyed in the commandant’s villa adjoining Auschwitz. There is a photo of a gate that leads to the camp, “the gate to Hell,” Rainer calls it, a particular talisman for Rudolf’s grandson. “They must have looked through that gate,” he says of his father and his aunts. “What did they see? What did they know?” He goes to Auschwitz to find some kind of answer, accompanied by his friend Eldad Beck, the Berlin correspondent of Yediot Ahronot, a third-generation survivor,  many of whose family members were murdered there. In the course of their trip to the death camp, Rainer finally looks through that gate himself. He also meets a group of young Israeli students and, when asked what he would say to his grandfather today, he replies, “I would kill him myself.”

The great achievement of “Hitler’s Children” is not merely a cinematic one, that Ze’evi manages to keep the film moving between its five protagonists so gracefully without short-changing any of their stories. That is a considerable feat itself, but the real triumph of the film is in its larger thematic quest, a pitiless attempt to show what happens to people who are forced by to try to normalize and understand the uniquely atrocious circumstances of their upbringing, to examine what Niklas Frank calls “a happy childhood in a sea of blood.”

As Frank bitterly tells the filmmakers, “We really must do justice to parents like that, yes.”

A highly recommended film indeed.